Systems Thinking Theory and Practice

On the Contented Life

By Kevin Mueller / ChatGPT,

This morning I was once again thinking about how to “shape” my life, how to prioritize, what matters. This led me to pick up Singer’s book with the wonderful title “On the Contented Life”1 again, a text he wrote around 1923 (!). It also led to an interesting tought experiment with ChatGPT-4:

User: Good day. What do you make of the following: “on the contented life”?

Assistant: Good day! The phrase “on the contented life” brings to mind discussions about what it means to live a life filled with satisfaction and peace. This concept often involves understanding and accepting one’s circumstances, focusing on the positive aspects of life, and finding joy in the simple things. It might also include the pursuit of personal passions, meaningful relationships, and a sense of purpose. Philosophers and thinkers throughout history, from ancient times to modern days, have explored this topic, suggesting that a contented life is more about one’s internal state and attitudes than external conditions and material possessions.

User: How does “personal mastery” tie into this?

Assistant: Personal mastery is deeply connected to the concept of a contented life. It refers to the continuous process of learning and improvement in all aspects of one’s life, aiming for growth and a deeper understanding of oneself. This concept involves self-awareness, setting personal goals, and working towards them with discipline and resilience. Here’s how it ties into the idea of living a contented life:

  1. Self-awareness and Acceptance: Personal mastery encourages individuals to become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This self-awareness can lead to greater acceptance of oneself, which is a key component of contentment. Understanding and accepting one’s strengths and weaknesses allow for a more peaceful and satisfied life.

  2. Continuous Growth: The journey towards personal mastery involves constantly setting and pursuing personal and professional goals. This pursuit of growth can lead to a more fulfilling life, as it aligns one’s actions with their values and aspirations, leading to a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

  3. Emotional Regulation: Personal mastery includes learning how to effectively manage emotions. The ability to remain calm and composed in the face of adversity is crucial for maintaining a contented state of mind. It enables individuals to handle stress, setbacks, and challenges more effectively, contributing to overall well-being.

  4. Purpose and Meaning: Part of personal mastery is discovering what truly matters to an individual—identifying their purpose and what gives their life meaning. Engaging in activities that align with one’s purpose can significantly enhance feelings of contentment.

  5. Autonomy and Responsibility: Personal mastery empowers individuals to take control of their lives, making conscious choices that reflect their true selves. This autonomy and sense of responsibility for one’s happiness are essential components of a contented life.

In summary, personal mastery isn’t just about achieving specific goals but about developing a mindset and set of skills that foster continuous growth, emotional well-being, and a deeper sense of contentment with life.

User: This must also include acceptance that much cannot actually be “mastered” in a lifetime right?

Assistant: Absolutely, acceptance that not everything can be “mastered” in a lifetime is a crucial aspect of personal mastery itself. This understanding highlights the importance of setting realistic expectations, practicing patience, and maintaining a flexible attitude towards one’s goals and ambitions.

Recognizing the limits of control and embracing the imperfections of life and self are key to finding contentment. It’s about appreciating the journey of growth and learning, rather than solely focusing on the destination or the achievement of perfection. This mindset helps individuals to:

  1. Value Progress Over Perfection: Understanding that mastery is an ongoing process encourages continuous learning and growth, rather than feeling defeated by unattainable standards of perfection.

  2. Cultivate Resilience: Accepting that some aspects of life and self may never be fully mastered teaches resilience. It encourages adapting to circumstances and finding solutions, rather than being overwhelmed by challenges.

  3. Embrace Change: Recognizing that life is a series of changes and that mastery is not a static achievement allows individuals to remain open to new experiences and learning opportunities.

  4. Prioritize What Matters: This acceptance helps individuals focus on what is truly important and attainable, leading to a more targeted and satisfying pursuit of personal and professional goals.

  5. Foster Compassion and Self-Kindness: Understanding the limits of mastery can lead to greater compassion towards oneself and others, as it acknowledges the common human experience of imperfection and struggle.

In essence, personal mastery involves a balance between striving for improvement and accepting the inherent limitations of control and perfection. This balance is key to living a contented and fulfilling life.

User: That is plausible and leads to two follow-up questions: is there a better word than “mastery”, one that doesn’t allude to slavery and how “gender neutral” is this topic, as in do men and women equally strive for “personal mastery”?

Assistant: The term “mastery” indeed carries historical connotations that some may find problematic. An alternative term that avoids these connotations and better encapsulates the concept of continuous personal growth and development could be “personal development” or “self-actualization.” These terms emphasize ongoing improvement and the realization of one’s potential without the implication of control or dominance that “mastery” might suggest. “Self-actualization” particularly aligns with the idea of achieving one’s fullest potential, as discussed in psychological theories like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs2.

Regarding the gender neutrality of striving for personal development or self-actualization, the concept itself is universal and applies to all individuals, irrespective of gender. However, the way in which people pursue personal growth and the areas they focus on can be influenced by a variety of factors, including cultural norms, societal expectations, and individual life experiences. These factors can shape the goals, values, and challenges that men, women, and non-binary individuals face on their paths to personal development.

Societal expectations and gender roles can impact the opportunities and barriers individuals encounter. For example, women may face specific challenges related to balancing career aspirations with societal expectations around caregiving roles. Men, on the other hand, might contend with societal pressures regarding emotional expression and vulnerability, which can affect their personal growth journeys.

Despite these differences, the pursuit of personal development or self-actualization is fundamentally gender-neutral, focusing on the universal human desire for growth, fulfillment, and the realization of one’s potential. It’s important to approach this topic with an understanding of the diverse experiences and challenges different individuals may face, advocating for a supportive environment that encourages personal growth for everyone, regardless of gender.

User: Thanks for helping me think this through.

  1. Edgar A. Singer “On the Contented Life”, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1923 and 1936 

  2. As proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the Journal Psychological Review